My quest for understanding

Guest post by Keith Sparkjoy, vice president of the Sparkjoy Foundation, originally featured as a post at  Follow this link to listen to our first podcast with Keith.

I’ve been on a quest over the last few years. A quest to understand why the work that I started at a company that I cofounded didn’t quite, well, stick. As many of my readers know, I’m a big fan of the W. Edwards Deming theory of management, and for a time we were giving it a go. Even in the short time we were focused on it, we saw some amazing results: sales people working together for the good of the company, management focusing on systems rather than finger pointing, and people busting down our doors to work for us. And while much of that still exists there in one form or another, the company is moving back to more traditional ways. Why didn’t it stick?

Deming is all about cooperation. A system must have an aim, and if everyone is cooperating toward achieving an aim where everyone wins, staff all pulling in the same direction, nobody could possibly compete with that. It seems utopian to imagine everyone at a company working toward an aim larger than themselves (and larger than just making a profit). But I’ve personally seen the beginnings of such a system, and it’s exciting to behold.

Selfishness destroys this. Departments can be selfish, and so can individuals. And for a time I was convinced that selfishness was the thing. Indeed in the US and around the world, the way we raise our kids using carrots and sticks to gain compliance does make them more selfish. So I relentlessly studied both parenting and education to see what I could do to encourage a generation of less selfish people. And I learned a great deal that helped me become a better parent, and a better human. And along the way I discovered some ideas that made visible for me a much deeper schism in our culture. One that we don’t like to talk about. I’ll get to that in a bit, but first of all I want to motivate why you’d even care.

Relationships trump individual contribution

One thing Deming always harped on was how wasteful it is to try to measure individual performance. He pointed out that a company is a complicated system of parts that all depend on one another in complicated ways, and that the performance of any individual in that system is given by an equation, Performance = I + SI. Note there are two factors: individual contribution and the contribution of the individual’s interaction with the system (SI). This is a single equation with two unknowns – it cannot be solved. Deming had the courage to ask us to simply stop trying to do that.

Let’s examine one of the most critical parts of this system interaction factor – how people in a company interact with each other. Imagine a staff of only two people, Alice and Bob. If Alice and Bob get along well, treat each other kindly, and act as shock absorbers for one another when one of them is having a bad day, their interaction (let’s call it AB) will be positive – it will contribute to the performance of the system. But if Alice and Bob clash regularly, dismiss each others ideas, and act as amplifiers for each others’ bad days, AB is negative – it degrades the performance of the system. I’m sure you’ve experienced this. There’s no shortage of dysfunctional companies out there!

Now consider this. The number of relationships grows as N squared (look at the picture of the small telephone network above to get an idea of how many relationships exist in even the smallest company). Relationships dwarf individuals. No wonder Deming wasn’t interested in measuring individual performance – he was much more interested in the interactions between individuals. Watch Yves Morieux’s TED talk about cooperation in an Olympic relay race. It’s only a 16-minute video – I’ll wait for you.

Why are we so bad at sustaining relationships as a culture?

Over the course of a couple of years, as I learned more and more about what it takes to create healthy, cooperative, corporate cultures, it finally dawned on me why so many of the practices required to do this feel so odd. So out of place. So foreign. Ready?

Most of the skills necessary for sustaining great relationships are considered feminine.

Compassion, empathy, and yes, vulnerability. The so-called “soft” skills. And Western cultures (as well as many Eastern cultures) devalue the feminine (certainly in practice, if not entirely in principle). Growing up, young boys quickly learn that to be a man, the most important thing is not to be a woman. It’s a sad state of affairs that we quite literally halve ourselves as humans, very early in life. Men are raised to be competitors, not cooperators. Women also lose something important – their ability to be assertive, their voice  and that amplifies the problem. Women have a lot to teach us, but their words aren’t given much value. This explained a lot.

It explained my own personal unease when first introduced to Deming’s ideas. Soon after having this epiphany, I read The Chalice and the Blade, by Rianne Eisler, which introduced the idea of dominator hierarchies. And this helped me better understand the culture of competition in which I was raised. It gave me much hope to see Eisler share evidence that’s being unearthed of early partnership societies. These were more cooperative and equalitarian societies. But our kids don’t learn about cooperative societies in school; rather they learn about early dominator civilizations, readying them to take their place in our dominator culture. If you’ve not read Eisler’s book, I challenge you to pick it up. It’s important work.

Most of us as youngsters were not taught how to have sustainable relationships. Our parents weren’t the best role models because they themselves didn’t have good role models, and the legacy continues. At the same time, our culture bombards us with lousy examples.

Relationships are critical to a company’s success, but the raw material that most of us start with leaves much to be desired.

The answers are out there

Deming was fond of saying, “There is no substitute for knowledge,” and I’ve been fortunate to find an author who, at least for me, teased apart relational life in a way that I could easily understand, with knowledge that I was able to use in my own life. His name is Terrence Real, and he’s been acting as a “front line medic” for relationships for over 30 years, teaching theory about relationships as well as practical skills for sustaining healthy ones. Terry’s focus is on marital relationships, but the concepts and skills that he teaches are applicable anywhere, including in companies. The vast majority of us need some help learning how to cultivate healthy relationships, not just at home, but also at work. And I’m going to be sharing much of what I’ve learned from Terry in a way that you can apply in any relationship, from home to work, on my blog.

If you want to get a taste of Terry’s work, and his take on this schism in our culture, check out his audio book, How Can I Get Through to You? In under five hours, it explores our dominator culture from the battlefield of marriage, which I believe is the ultimate test of relationship skills.

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